Wondrous Free

Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday, April 15.

I thought I knew exactly what would be on Chanticleer’s program of American choral music: a few shape-note hymns, some folk songs and spirituals, one or two works by big twentieth-century names such as Barber or Copland, and another couple of pieces the choir itself has commissioned over the years. I was right, to a degree—those were all on the program—but I foolishly underestimated the choir’s bent toward venturing past standard repertory.

In addition to the expected selections, Chanticleer sought out traditional seventeenth-century liturgical music written by immigrants to New Spain and also featured a striking work by Brent Michael Davids, an American Indian composer who draws heavily on indigenous musical traditions. Even the “folk songs and spirituals,” my careless catch-all, proved more varied in style than I had so casually anticipated. Taken together, the mix beautifully accomplished what must have been the goal: to celebrate just how wildly diverse America’s musical heritage truly is.

Besides showcasing remarkable compositional variety, the concert (named for what is thought to be the oldest surviving American secular song) also showcased Chanticleer’s own versatility, truly one of the choir’s greatest strengths. As much as I admire Pomerium’s single-minded dedication to choral music of the Renaissance (and I do! early-music ensembles perform an invaluable musicological service), I must admit that I prefer Chanticleer’s expansive embrace of great music of many eras. The choir’s perfectly blended straight-toned approach to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century is impeccable, yet it shifts easily to the broad, forward tone of shape-note singing; the richer, more shimmery timbre of Barber’s neo-romantic songs; and even the eerie, nasal vocalizations of Native American tradition.

Davids’s “Night Chant,” blending those Native American musical attributes with European operatic conventions, memorably concluded the first half of the program. Despite the disparate influences, the piece cohered well, with rhythmic flourishes, passionate intensity, and delicious uncanny use of falsetto. (Also: nose flutes!)

One of my favorite works came in the program’s second half when Chanticleer performed Eric Whitacre’s arrangement of “Sleep, My Child” from his own larger work Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings. I have only vague memories of reading about the Paradise premiere several years ago (Chanticleer’s program notes describe it as “a cutting-edge musical combining trance, ambient, and techno electronica with choral, cinematic, and opera traditions,” which is … a lot), but now I’m curious about it because “Sleep, My Child” was breathtakingly lovely. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been as enamored of the original setting (ambient electronica doesn’t inspire me the way the human voice does), but Whitacre’s specially commissioned arrangement for Chanticleer was a luminous lullaby, gently angular melodic lines and velvety thick harmonies together creating a sonorous blanket.

The real crowd-pleasers came at the end. Anyone who can’t appreciate the folk song “Shenandoah,” for example, is dead inside, and George Gershwin’s languid “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, features one of the most perfect melodies ever conceived. Chanticleer’s arrangement wasn’t my favorite, but alto soloist Cortez Mitchell was captivating. Too often, soloistic melisma becomes splattery—impressively showy but ultimately unmusical—but his embellishments were exquisite, flawlessly timed and modulated and ardently soulful. His number earned the most enthusiastic and sustained applause of the night, and he deserved it.

The real star, of course, is the choir as a whole. As a music major, I along with the other instrumentalists used to tease the voice majors (we called them mouth majors and giggled at their paranoid fear of catching a cold), but the truth is there is something special about using one’s own body, in chorus with others, to create music. I realize I’ve harped on this point before, but even my own repertory, for piano and organ, doesn’t move so deeply as choral literature does, and I’ve never heard a choir perform that literature quite so well as Chanticleer does. Their every concert delights me. I never get bored with them.

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